Opinion: Code of conduct can help in divisive Senate runoff

It’s time for Georgia’s candidates and party leaders to sign a campaign code of conduct.
A sign in the front yard of a home in Atlanta's Westview neighborhood reminds residents about the upcoming U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

Credit: Courtesy/Clara Green

Credit: Courtesy/Clara Green

A sign in the front yard of a home in Atlanta's Westview neighborhood reminds residents about the upcoming U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

The Carter Center is no stranger to polarized elections. Over the last three decades, we’ve observed more than 110 elections in 39 countries, many of them deeply divided. Now we’re faced with a high-stakes election in our own backyard.

The Jan. 5 runoff for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats has captured the attention of the nation – and, indeed, the world – and attracted an unprecedented influx of money. More than $283 million has already been spent on political ads for the two races, according to AdImpact, and a great many of those ads are negative.

The close outcome of the presidential contest; the persistent, unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud; and the intense level of competition in these races raise concerns we’ve seen before in countries where elections threaten to irreparably tear a community’s democratic fabric, or worse, devolve into violence. Already here in Georgia, there have been appalling threats made against election officials.

Paige Alexander, CEO, The Carter Center

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Because of this, The Carter Center is calling on candidates and parties to adopt a campaign code of conduct – a common practice and one of the best tools to reduce tensions and mitigate threats of violence in volatile elections.

These codes are not legally binding, but they contain commitments that contestants agree to adhere to and encourage their supporters to respect. As such, codes of conduct provide a basis by which citizens, media and other watchdog groups can benchmark their assessment of the campaign. Often, to further draw attention to the commitments, senior elected officials, election administrators, and notable religious, business and civic leaders take part in public signings and public roundtables about the code (which in the time of coronavirus are virtual).

We have found that just seeing the competing candidates affirm publicly their commitment to democratic norms can have an enormous psychological impact on the general public and can help counter the divisive negative campaigning that might otherwise dominate political discourse during an election. The Carter Center has drafted a suggested code of conduct and we’re contacting the four candidates to ask them to sign it.

Among its key elements, such a code should:

  • Require that candidates and others actively denounce all acts or threats of violence and ask their supporters to behave in a respectful and non-provocative manner toward those who hold or express competing views, including by avoiding the use of language, symbols, memes and gestures that are inflammatory, defamatory, or constitute hate speech.
  • Reassure voters that all voting procedures authorized by law – including absentee voting, voting early in person, and voting on Election Day – are safe, secure and reliable, and have built-in checks and controls to ensure integrity of the elections. And that all such ballots, when legally cast, should be counted.
  • Emphasize that the counting process must be conducted in a transparent manner, which includes the opportunity for accredited poll watchers, including those representing the competing candidates, to observe all aspects of the counting process.
  • Commit the parties and candidates to train poll watchers on their roles, responsibilities, and obligations at polling sites, including refraining from illegal behaviors that have an intimidating effect, or that constitute harassment.
  • Commit the parties and candidates to respect the process itself, to acknowledge the legal system as the appropriate means of raising any concerns about the conduct of the election, and to agree to abide by the outcome of that system.

The preparation and publicizing of a code of conduct is a public affirmation that parties and candidates, even in the midst of a hotly contested campaign, recognize the need to lower the temperature and to reinforce the core belief that underlies an electoral democracy: The people’s will, as determined through the free vote of eligible voters, must be respected.

Georgians deserve candidates and party leaders willing to commit to that principle.

Paige Alexander is CEO of The Carter Center, a nonprofit organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Based in Atlanta, it works around the world to resolve conflicts; advance democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; prevent disease; and improve mental health care.